black&white #38: Tea, public health and the industrial revolution

black&white #38: Tea, public health and the industrial revolution

2 min steep

With the cost of living crisis spiralling out of control, union activity is back up – with train workers, postal workers, barristers and journalists all striking this week. Trade unions started with the rapid industrialisation of the late 18th and the 19th centuries, which drew thousands of workers together in towns and cities. Many lived in poverty and the work itself was often long, boring, dangerous, and gruelling – prompting the emergence of the trade unions in a bid to improve the living and working conditions of these new urban populations. Whether you agree with the current industrial action or not, trade unions are responsible for weekends, the minimum wage, maternity and paternity rights, pensions, and holiday and sickness entitlements. But what on earth does this have to do with tea?

Surprisingly, tea played a central role in our nation’s industrial past. Around the late 18th century, decreased taxes – it was lowered from 119% to 12.5% in one fell swoop – and improved global transport networks made tea cheaper in the UK and more widely available to the general public. By the end of the 18th century, tea was consumed by even the poorest in society – and it was fast becoming the nation’s favourite drink. But tea was also an integral and surprising part of the industrial revolution taking place in Britain. The combination of caffeinated tea and calorific sugar proved the perfect fuel for people working long, draining hours in factories and kept workers alert when operating dangerous machinery. Factory owners realised the economic and social value in providing regular doses of hot, sugary tea – and the tea break was born.

ALLISON CUDDON, 'THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION'

Allison Cuddon, 'The Industrial Revolution', Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

That’s not all, though. While it's not a new theory, recent research has offered empirical evidence that tea drinking also powered the industrial revolution by improving the health of the population. Professor Francisca Antman, an economist at the University of Colorado, has revealed that the practice of boiling water for tea lowered mortality rates by 25% in lower water-quality parishes. 

The widespread consumption of tea, both in the workplace and at home, coincided with huge numbers moving into cities for work. Instead of the deadly epidemics which would have resulted from overcrowded and unhygienic living conditions, the country saw the creation of a more healthy, more energetic labour force. This “accidental improvement” in public health contributed to the staggering population growth (it tripled)in the century after 1750. 

As Prof Antman argues, the paradox of why England “experienced a decline in mortality rates over this period without an increase in wages, living standards, or nutrition can be explained in part by the widespread adoption of tea as the national beverage and the commensurate increased consumption of boiled water”. Completely fascinating, and yet another example of how tea has influenced, and by no small measure, our society and economy at large.

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